right to life of climate deniers, children in poverty, and future
February 2017, revised March 2019
Further information in
Another text about the death penalty: link
the last days of 2012, sensationalist media reported that I had "called
for" the death penalty for (influential) climate deniers. That
true, as those who actually read my text knew. The title of my text was
deliberately misleading: "Death penalty for global warming deniers?"
People of diverse political colors and stripes pretended not to have
seen the question mark at the end of the title and responded as if it
had been an explanation mark.
But the answer to the question was clear. I had clarified my total
opposition to the death penalty at three different points in the text:
I have always been opposed to the death penalty in all cases,
and I have always supported the clear and consistent stand of Amnesty
International on this issue. The death penalty is barbaric, racist,
expensive, and is often applied by mistake.
Even mass murderers should not be executed, in my opinion.
Please note that I am not directly suggesting that the threat of
execution be carried out. I am simply presenting a logical argument.
I had chosen my words carefully, making my main intention clear on
the first page. My intention was (and still is) to promote the basic
rights of people in developing countries:
those who will suffer most
from climate change. In the ensuing discussion, hardly anyone talked
about that, as if those people did not exist or did not matter.
Ambiguity as strategy
At other places in the text, I deliberately contradicted myself, in
order to attract attention to the world's most serious issue. But I was
not the only one to contradict myself. A profound contradiction existed
already, and continues to exist, in the opinions of climate deniers and
death penalty supporters, who are often the same people. How can you
support the death penalty for the most serious crimes, while at the
same time contributing to what might be the most serious crime of all
If there is one thing that everyone can agree about, it is that my
statement was ambiguous. The ambiguity was deliberate. My intention was
to attract attention to the world's most important issue from a human
rights perspective and start a public discussion. In that regard, I was
successful. But I did not expect that my statement would go viral, even after I had deleted it. Nor did I realise in
advance that people on both sides of the debate might misuse my text for different purposes.
On the whole, the strategy of sending an ambiguous message was
successful. Countless people suddenly announced their total opposition
to the death penalty and started talking about the paramount importance
of human rights, both in public and in private. Perhaps many did so for
the first time! In retrospect, that made the accompanying threats,
defamation and cyberbullying seem worthwhile. I realised later that
everyone who had accused me of being evil was a small victory for human
rights, even if they had misunderstood my central message.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was this: Even after all the
publicity, my friends in the environmental and human rights movements,
as well as my colleagues in climate science, appeared still not to have
understood that climate change is the biggest human rights issue, and human rights is the biggest climate issue. Climate change could kill
100 million people by 2030 and many
more in the long term. Environmental
organisations like Greenpeace and human rights organizations like
Amnesty International should be supporting each other, because their
main goals are surprisingly similar. Needless to say, I have been
supporting both of these and other such organisations for a long time
and I continue to do so. I will return to these points below.
can still read exaggerated, misleading discussions about my
deleted and withdrawn 2012 text in the internet. In the following, I
will attempt to put the
record straight, for those who care enough to
listen. The world's biggest problem is not climate change itself or
poverty itself -- it is the enormous numbers of people who will die
prematurely as a result of climate change and poverty. As I learned,
the number of people who sincerely care
world's biggest problem and are prepared to do something concrete and
significant about it is astonishingly
small. On this point, denial is almost universal.
Courageous or evil? Perpetrator or victim?
Most responses to my text fell into two different categories. Total strangers
who care about the future of our children wrote to me
confirming that the accusations were false,
thanking me for my courageous contribution, and regretting the "shitstorm". Other
total strangers who evidently do not jumped at the chance to present themselves as
and someone else as the villain. In other words, they tried to
the perpetrator-victim relationship.
As I later found out, many of them were already experienced players of
In fact, I was neither perpetrator nor victim. As far as climate change
- the main
perpetrators are influential climate deniers, and
If these two points (both of them!) and their
implications were widely recognized, we would be moving faster toward a
main victims are a billion children in developing
for me, I was standing on the sidelines, trying to tell the truth about
this unfolding 21st-century tragedy and thinking aloud about possible
solutions. That's not always easy in a media environment that is so
deeply infected by "fake news".
Most of all, I was looking for ways to defend the basic rights of a
billion innocent children. Amazing but true: discussions about
climate change regularly ignore the people who will be affected the
The main points
There were several important points in my argument that are generally ignored or denied. One was this: If the
death penalty was limited (by
global agreement) to individuals who knowingly
cause a million deaths, some of the most influential climate deniers
would become candidates. At the
same time, all prisoners on all death
rows in all countries would be released. I don't recall seeing any
discussion of this idea -- whether in the media, the internet, or the
emails I received. I will return to it below.
Even more importantly, climate change is a matter of
life and death for a billion children now living in developing
rising CO2 concentration
of the earth's atmosphere, the laws of physics, the world's rising
population, and the well-known
multiple consequences of global warming for humans -- all of that taken
-- will probably mean premature death for a billion people over the
next one or two centuries. That is true even if global
emissions fall rapidly in coming years and warming is limited to 2°C; in the current
situation that is unlikely, but we must never stop fighting for it.
follows that climate
change is the world's biggest human rights issue. Moreover, human rights are the most
important climate change issue. You
would not know that from the public discourse, which often focuses on
money. How much will it cost to reduce emissions? How many jobs will be
lost? What about economic growth? Discourse about human rights
similarly avoids the topic of climate change. Often, it focuses on individuals. Of course it is essential
to apply international pressure to free prisoners of conscience and
commute death sentences, again and again, for as long as it takes. For
that reason, I have supported Amnesty
International, both financially and practically, for more than two
decades. But it is also necessary, and
even more important due to the enormous numbers of affected
people, to consider the basic
rights of unidentified climate change
victims. As Amnesty emphasizes, every
person has the same inherent value, independent of skin
color, gender, age, public profile, legal record and so on.
say, this principle applies to influential climate deniers in the same
way as it applies to millions of peasant farmers in Bangladesh whose
livelihood is threatened by rising sea levels, to give one of many
We have a fundamental legal problem. In the unprecedented case of
global warming, the law seems unable to enforce natural law
and defend natural
rights, according to which every natural person has the same
basic rights, of which the most
important is the right to life. Guaranteeing
the right to
have the highest priority. In fact, the law as currently formulated in
different countries is incapable of defending fundamental
rights. International law is non-binding, soft law. It is not possible
to go to court in one country and defend the right to life of a billion
children in other countries. Given the overriding importance of these
issues, you would expect to see a public discussion, but there is none.
For decades, influential
climate deniers have been threatening the basic
rights of all people everywhere. Motivated by personal financial gain, they have
been preventing progress toward climate solutions by suppressing
important scientific information, confusing the public, and hindering
progress at global
climate talks. Influential climate deniers are still considered legally innocent, as if they
were merely exercising their right
to freedom of speech. But
right to life is
obviously more important than the right to freedom of expression,
climate deniers cannot be held responsible
for crimes against humanity (and the
legal profession has so far made little progress in that direction),
then it is hard to imagine how the basic rights of a billion people
can be protected. In that case, the law will have failed spectacularly.
of basic rights that involve larger numbers of people
(here, billions) are obviously more important than those
smaller numbers, everyone being equal before the law.
Of course, there is not the slightest danger that
an influential climate denier will ever land on death row, no
matter what anyone may write about them. In any
case, the death penalty is never justified, for any crime at all, as I
I included this horror scenario in my text for two reasons.
wanted to attract attention to a serious issue that is currently being
neglected -- not just any serious issue, but the world's biggest. (If a
reader knows of a more serious issue in terms of the likely number of
premature deaths, let me know!)
Like criminals on death row, future victims of
climate change do not know in advance whether
they will die prematurely (death sentences are often commuted). But if
they do die, one thing is for sure: their death will be anthropogenic
(caused by humans). Moreover, from
the viewpoint of the victim,
death by hunger, disease, violence, or drowning is not (to my
knowledge) preferable to death by firing squad, hanging, fatal
injection, or the electric chair. From the
victim's viewpoint, premature
death is always horrific -- no matter how it happens.
climate change is a matter of life and death, every person whose future life is
threatened by climate change is effectively on
death row. This
applies in particular to a billion innocent children in developing
follows that the death penalty and climate change are related
political/moral issues. If we really want to promote universal
human rights, we should dare to compare. If we want to end the death
penalty everywhere, we also have to save a billion innocent children
from climate-death row.
What I am really "calling for"
My 2012 text did not directly "call for" anything. The text you are
reading now does. We should urgently implement the following points:
the taboos and the "elephants the room". Start talking about them. End
truth, and care about it. Honesty and caring are related to
each other. Both are in short supply.
everyone agrees that all people are equally valuable. Put this basic
principle of human rights into practice. It follows that the biggest
problems are those that affect the most people the most
devote more time, energy, and money to bigger problems and less to
smaller. That is the best way to sustainably improve any
situation. Focusing on smaller problems and neglecting larger ones (as
often happens in
politics, the media, and private conversation) is a recipe for disaster.
These ideas are not particularly original. They emerge almost automatically when principles of critical
are honestly, caringly, and creatively applied to the basic
findings of climate research. All of them essentially boil down to just
one point. The
indirect killing of future
people has to stop, and it has to stop now. Not in ten
years or even
next year, but now. If I'm
"calling for" anything, that's it.
- On that
basis, urgently and drastically
reduce all greenhouse-gas emissions in all sectors.
would be surprisingly easy to achieve that. It's no longer a question
of research. We now understand the relevant physics, chemistry,
biology, geology, technology, economics, psychology, and sociology in
great detail. Climate change has instead become a
moral question. We need more honesty, compassion, and political will. We need to decide
to address the problem seriously, at last. Only then will the burning
of fossil fuels, the destruction of forest, and the production of meat
and concrete rapidly slow down and approach zero.
A solution that takes human
rights seriously will surely mean fast economic changes that
bring global economic turbulence. But nothing can be more turbulent
than what climate change will bring later this century. From a human
rights perspective that takes into account the future as well as the
present, the optimum rate of change is now very fast.
What is a climate denier?
people in the world, and indeed probably most people reading this text,
are climate deniers in the weak sense of not doing anything significant
to reduce their personal carbon footprint or that of people in
their sphere of influence, or not supporting climate action on a
political level. We are acting as if climate change was not
happening, was not caused by humans, or was not an existential threat
to humanity. We pretend not to know that the golden age of human
civilization is drawing to a close and things will probably get
incrementally worse on a global scale every decade for the next
century. We realise, but refuse to admit, that our present extravagence
and indifference is causing the future suffering of our own children.
The science is speaking, but we are not listening. We are sleepwalking
A smaller number of people are climate deniers in the strong sense of
publicly claiming that climate change is not happening, not caused by
humans, or not an existential threat. An even smaller number are influential
climate deniers who promote the burning of fossil fuels or
prevent climate action from
happening, and thereby indirectly cause enormous suffering in the
future, especially in tropical and developing countries where people
are particularly vulnerable.
My text clarified at length that I was not talking about
climate deniers in general. I was only talking about influential
deniers -- specifically, those influential enough to cause a
million deaths. I was also talking generally about
anyone who might by any means cause a million deaths. Those who wanted
to misrepresent me intentionally got this wrong and pretended I wanted
to "kill all deniers".
It follows from the main causes and effects of climate change
that a single influential climate denier could
indirectly kill a million future people. By "kill" I mean "cause death"
or "end lives prematurely". Thought
if the number was exactly one million? What if we knew them all by
name? According to universally accepted principles of human
rights, every one of those 1,000,001 people (including our climate
denier) would have the same inherent
value and the same inalienable rights. Not one of those people would deserve to die
What does the death
penalty have to do with it?
Many people in the world are both climate deniers (in the strong sense)
and supporters of the death penalty. That applies to many
members of the US Republican party, which Noam Chomsky has
described as the world's
most dangerous organisation, mainly
because of the party's contribution to global climate change. But his
claim would be true even if we considered only US militarism. US forces
have bombed 24 countries since
is a map), pushed
mainly (not only) by Republicans in the background. If you are looking
for an example of the most sinister and hypocritical modern
here it is.
Those who support the death penalty often claim that it is
deter the most serious crimes. Empirical studies have provided evidence
both for and against that proposition, but careful statistical
analyses of relevant variables in different US states failed to find a
significant effect (more).
That is just one of several controversial points. Another is how to
define the "most serious crimes". Many death penalty supporters argue
that the seriousness of a crime
depends on the number
of deaths caused. For example, many claim that the perpetrator
the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh, "deserved" the death
penalty because of the large number of people killed (168). According
to this criterion, influential climate
denial is one of the few most serious crimes of all time. This
realisation has very serious consequences for those many people who are
influential climate deniers and supporters of the death penalty. They
have a choice: either stop denying climate change or stop supporting
the death penalty. I warmly recommend doing both.
While you're at it, dear Republicans, please get out your Bibles and
read what Jesus said and did. Read about humility,
and caring for other people, especially those who suffer from poverty,
illness, or discrimination. Read about telling the truth and exposing
hypocrisy. Read about living simply and eschewing luxury. Read about
forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and pacifism. Have you realised
yet that Jesus probably had olive-colored
skin, or that he was himself a victim of the death penalty?
The death penalty is relevant in another way. Climate change will cause
an enormous number of species to go extinct. There is a real danger
that homo sapiens will be one of them. In that case, climate change could be a death sentence for humanity.
If we took that threat seriously, we might be more serious about
cutting emissions. A more likely scenario is that people with more
money will survive, whereas those with less money will perish. Again,
this can only mean one thing: cut all emissions urgently.
The main point of this discussion is to protect the right to
life of a
billion children in developing countries. If we want to protect their
rights, we have to prevent actions that are threatening them. To do
that, we have to attract attention to the problem and present
convincing arguments. If almost everyone is
ignoring the rights of a billion children -- and that is really what is
happening, still today -- it is appropriate and
necessary to shock people into waking up.
Who is evil? Who is guilty? Who is racist?
The outraged climate deniers, and many others who fell into the trap of
taking climate deniers seriously, presented me as evil. In their words,
I had "called for" the death penalty for influential climate deniers.
There are two serious problems with this accusation.
did not do that. My text clearly presented the main arguments against
the death penalty and clarified that it is not justified even in the
extreme case of one person causing a million human deaths. A million!
people who carry the most responsibility for the future human cost of
climate change are the most influential climate deniers of the past few
decades. If the size of a crime is measured only by the number of deaths it causes, climate change may be considered the greatest crime in human history. What
punishment is appropriate for the worst criminals ever? If the death
penalty is out of the question (as it should be), it is important first
of all to end the death penalty everywhere. If the climate deniers of
the world agreed with that, they would be at the forefront of
international anti-death-penalty activism. But they are not.
who presented me as evil were in the same breath ignoring the right to
life of countless millions of future climate change victims in
developing countries -- as if those people neither existed nor
mattered. But the right to life of those people was obviously what my
text was about. I explained that on the first page. Those people
really are on death row: they really will die prematurely with a
certain probability, and we (with our emissions and denial) are really
the cause of their future deaths. When will that message get through?
How loud does one have to scream before people get it?
Many who accused me of being evil were themselves being more evil --
perhaps a million times more! They were effectively proposing
that the right to life of one influential climate denier is
greater than the right to life of a million future victims of climate
change. Some of those accusers might understand this problem for the
first time when reading this text. But the point was clear in my
original text, at least for people that already believe that every
human being has the same value. I know that it was clear at that time, because I received so much support from total strangers.
But many people evidently do not believe in the equal value of all
humans. Perhaps criticism of my text came mainly from people who
believe in their inherently superiority.
Evidently, many people still haven’t clicked that Black Lives
Matter. The message may have reached their heads, but it is still
waiting for the journey into their hearts. As an example of how
important but difficult this journey is, consider the case of the
Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who in late 2018 and early 2019 pushed
global climate action forward like almost no one else before or since.
She did that by courageously telling truth to power. I am her
greatest fan. I cannot express how much gratitude I feel toward her and
all the other young leaders who have recently emerged in the struggle
for humanity's future. But even Greta's truth
was incomplete, because even she had not (at the time of writing)
mentioned the main future victims of climate change, namely children in
Imagine this scenario: Sometime in the future, the International
Criminal Court finally realises that influential climate denial is a
crime against humanity and starts to try the main culprits. Better late
than never! The trials get lots of publicity and most people in the
world know about them. Now we ask a random sample of people in diverse
countries what they think would be an appropriate punishment for a
climate denier (or anyone else) who knowingly caused millions of
deaths. The majority of those people spontaneously propose the death
penalty and explain like this: "For such an enormous crime, similar to
genocide, it’s the obvious and only possible punishment."
Needless to say, I will not be among those people. In fact, if a
scenario of this kind ever happens, I will again clarify my fundamental
opposition to the death penalty in all cases and my support for the
basic rights of all people elsewhere. That means stopping all
executions -- but also all fossil fuel emissions, all deforestation,
and all meat production as quickly as possible with minimum loss of
life by comparison to lives lost due to global warming. Instead of
balancing present financial costs of mitigation with future financial costs of adaptation, we should be balancing present human costs of decarbonization with future human costs of climate change.
Speaking of evil, my statement was related to the trolley problem
in ethics. Is it ok to kill one person to save the lives of five
people? If a runaway trolley (train carriage) is about to run over and
kill five innocent people, is it ok to divert the train onto another
track, where it will run over and kill only one, or is it ok to push
one person onto the track in front of the trolley, sacrificing one life
to save five? Is a person who does something like that "evil"? Is a
person who agrees that it is ok to do something like that "evil"? Or is
it the other way round -- is a person who fails to do that (or
disagrees with doing that) "evil"? There is no clear answer to this
question, but the disagreement does suggest that killing someone is
about five times worse that failing to take reasonable action to
prevent someone's death.
The trolley problem was implied in my scandalous text when I wrote
"I wish to claim that it is generally ok to kill someone in order to
save one million people". This sentence, as formulated, is obviously
true for anyone familiar with the trolley problem, because the number
one million is so much bigger than the number five. But even that
doesn't justify the death penalty for mass murderers, first because the
death penalty is never justified (for the usual reasons), and second
because a prisoner can reliably be prevented from causing any (further)
harm simply by keeping him or her in prison.
The point of my statement was to wake people up to the true
consequences of climate denial for our children and grandchildren. A
single influential climate denier can indirectly cause the deaths of a
million future people by preventing measures to mitigate climate
change. In coming decades and centuries, anthropogenic climate change
will cause hundreds of millions of premature deaths (for example by
increasing death rates in connection with poverty). These deaths will
have been caused by a large number of individual actions and decisions,
of which some were more influential than others.
These things may be obvious, but still no-one is talking about them.
The victims of this cowardly silence will be our children and
grandchildren, after we die of old age -- still pretending to be
innocent. Evidently, we don't care about our children and
grandchildren, otherwise we would be talking about this. I am not
accusing anyone here: as usual, I am just trying to formulate a logical
conclusion that is consistent with certain premises. To
accuse me of being "evil" for attracting attention to this problem is
patently absurd, but countless people did that, and I haven't received
any apologies yet.
My 2012 blog
title of my deleted 2012 blog was a
question: "Death penalty for global warming deniers?" The question was
obviously inappropriate and the answer was obviously "No". The death
penalty is never
justified, and I explained why as follows:
have always been opposed to the death penalty in all cases, and I have
always supported the clear and consistent stand of Amnesty
International on this issue. The death penalty is barbaric, racist,
expensive, and is often applied by mistake. Apparently, it does not
even act as a deterrent to would-be murderers. Hopefully, the USA and
China will come to their senses soon.
mass murderers should not be executed, in my opinion. Consider the
politically motivated murder of 77 people in Norway in 2011. Of course
the murderer does not deserve to live, and there is not the slightest
doubt that he is guilty. But if the Norwegian government killed him,
that would just increase the number of dead to 78. It would not bring
the dead back to life. In fact, it would not achieve anything positive
at all. I respect the families and friends of the victims if they feel
differently about that. I am simply presenting what seems to me to be a
had chosen a provocative title and taken a personal risk to attract
attention to a series of critically
important issues that were evidently being suppressed. How many deaths
will climate change cause, especially in developing countries? Who will
be held responsible? What will be the legal consequences? Today, little
How much longer do we have to wait for the right to life of a billion
people in developing countries to be taken seriously?
realised that I had intuitively applied a series of known techniques
for attracting attention with headings (more).
heading was short, concise, and understandable out of context. It started with powerful keywords, addressed important current issues, asked a
question, excited curiosity, and both surprised
and frightened the reader. I later realised that many people read no
further than the heading. In fact, some do not even read to the end of
a heading, which in this case was a question mark. We live and learn.
I deleted and apologized
the blog as soon as the first complaints started to arrive just
before Christmas 2012. I did so not only because of the wild, crazy
accusations of the deniers, but also because of the ambiguous response
from some of the smart, caring people whom I had expected to support
me. Evidently, the world was not yet ready for this kind of truth.
The deletion was in vain. The blog was discovered in Google
and posted against my will at a new address. That's how I
that "the internet never forgets". The sensational reactions that
followed in the media and climate denial blogs referred exclusively to
that had been withdrawn and deleted.
I then became a victim of cybermobbing. In
a globalized game of Chinese whispers, in which quasi-randomly selected
climate deniers and boulevard media reporters were the players,
exaggerated interpretations were re-exaggerated in a hysterical
self-reinforcing crescendo. Climate
deniers reported on their webpages that I wanted to kill them and
exhorted each other to send me their thoughts by email.
I wasn't the first to find myself in a situation of this kind. Some
three years later, a well-known climate denier
sent me a list of people who had suggested legal responses to climate
denial, including (in his interpretation) the death
penalty. Presumably they were all attacked in a similar way. The
statements were dated 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2012 (not
including my text). Some argued that climate denial is a form
treason, for which the penalty in USA is still death (as if
Middle Ages had never ended). Others argued that influential climate
denial is a crime against humanity, for which (in some interpretations,
but not that of the International Criminal Court) the penalty is death.
Climate deniers, of course, are liars by definition. One could even say
that they are experts in the art of lying. Many are also experienced
bullies, having attacked climate scientists in the past. The "crime" of
those climate scientists, like my "crime", was to dare to tell the
truth about climate change and climate denial in public, and the
staggering future conferences, especially for developing countries. I
had dared to
The aim of my text
The obvious primary aim of my text, for those that bothered to
read it, was to defend the right to life of people in
developing countries. I
had written right at the start (in the third paragraph,
after two short introductory paragraphs) that
the earth's temperature rises on average by more than two degrees,
interactions between different consequences of global warming
(reduction in the area of arable land, unexpected crop failures,
extinction of diverse plant and animal species) combined with
increasing populations mean that hundreds of millions of people may die
from starvation or disease in future famines.
People right across the political spectrum acted as if they missed that
point. Either they hadn't read it, or they pretended not to read it, or
they thought it was unimportant. Instead, they talked about the death
penalty as if I was a death penalty supporter. People are still
treating hundreds of millions of human lives as unimportant by
comparison to the right of rich countries to burn as much fossil fuel
as we want.
The fact that every second US-American is also a death penalty
supporter was also forgotten (more).
At the same time, my numerous critics, many of whom were death penalty
supporters themselves (falling somewhat embarrassingly into the
additional trap of hypocrisy), ignored the paragraph where I explained
in detail why the death penalty is never justified. Instead,
scandalized my thought experiment about the death penalty for one
climate denier (presumably white), as if that were more important than
the premature deaths of a million people (presumably black)
climate change. If you wanted indirect confirmation that racism, like
sexism, is almost everywhere in the hidden assumptions of people of all
political persuations, this was a startling new piece of evidence (more).
For some people, it seems, one white life is more valuable than a
million black lives.
There are two interesting differences between me and those roughly 100
million adult Americans who still believe in the death penalty for the
"most serious crimes". First, unlike them I identified the "most serious crimes"
in a fair and logical fashion, based a single, clear
assumption: the equal value of every human life. Second, I
explained that I am opposed to the death penalty in all cases, based on
the same assumption.
My question could be rephrased like this: Might influential climate
deniers be death-penalty candidates according to the logic of
million Americans? I implied this question for two reasons:
first, to expose an inherent flaw in the arguments of those 100 million Americans (and of course many other
people all over the world), and second
(more importantly!) to protect the right to life of a billion children
in developing countries.
Influential climate deniers have the same right to life as each of
those billion children. But the lives of the deniers are not in danger,
nor did my text pose the slightest danger to anyone. I was quite sure
of that when I wrote it, and the reason should be obvious. A court of
law could never establish beyond reasonable doubt that an influential
climate denier had caused future deaths. It could only estimate the
probability that the denier might have caused certain numbers of
deaths. No-one has ever been convicted for "probably causing future
It is nevertheless true that the lives of many or most of a billion
children now living in developing countries will be cut short by global
warming. Readers who don't believe that have some work to do. Go to the
IPCC homepage and
read in detail about the modern world's most
important issue. What will happen in countries that
already have a hunger problem when population increases at the same
time as the food supply decreases? What will happen to hundreds of
millions of climate refugees, forced to move by water wars or rising
seas, when other countries refuse to accept them? What will happen when
climate change indirectly causes old diseases to migrate or new
diseases to emerge from the melting permafrost?
The world's biggest human
My only intention was and still is to promote and protect human
rights. For a billion people in developing countries, climate change is
threatening. It is also racist,
because it will affect black
people more than white, although it is being caused by white people
more than black. It will affect women
more than men and children
more than adults, making it sexist and agist. Climate change
biggest human rights issue, because it will affect
more people than any other category of human-rights violation.
are universal. The right to life is obviously the most important
right; this point is unfortunately missing from the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948),
presumably due to an ambiguity about the death penalty that remains to
this day. What is clear is that everyone has the right to life, rich or
poor, black or white,
adult or child, man or woman, guilty or innocent. Influential climate
deniers have the same right to life as the children currently
living in poverty in developing countries whose future lives could be
destroyed by climate change.
My contentious blog was inspired by a decade-long academic project that
I founded and led. The aim of the project was to reduce racism and xenophobia by
applying insights and findings from research in contrasting academic
disciplines and collaborating with practitioners in NGOs, government,
education and so on. The project culminated in an international conference
that inspired a second
conference and diverse later
Climate change and the
Climate change is effectively putting a billion future people on death
row. The number one billion is a rough, order-of-magnitude estimate. It
of millions of children who are alive right now in developing countries
and further hundreds of millions who will be born in coming decades. These
people will die early (as infants, children or young adults) with a
certain (high) probability as a result one or more of the
known side-effects of climate change, including rising sea
freak storms, changing precipitation patterns, disappearing glaciers
affecting water supplies, ocean acidification, more frequent bushfires,
loss of biodiversity and so on. The list is long. Many of these side effects will reduce food
supplies, causing famines.
Prisoners on death row find themselves in a similar situation. It is
not certain that they will die, because their sentence could be commuted to life imprisonment. They
will be executed with a certain probability. The uncertainty is a cruel
aspect of an archaic form of punishment. US
death row typically
wait for ten
Similarly, many people in climate-vulnerable countries such as Bangladesh
(and many other developing countries) are waiting for the day
when they become climate refugees, not knowing where if anywhere they
will live in future, or if they will survive the journey.
I am totally opposed to the death penalty for the usual,
well-known reasons. One reason is inconsistency. The
death penalty is supposed to be a response to the most
serious crimes, but the most serious crimes are not even
recognized as such, let alone punished. From a human rights
perspective, the biggest crime of all is to indirectly cause the deaths
of an enormous number of people. That
frighteningly often, and I offered
a series of examples in my 2012 blog. Enormous numbers of lives could
be saved by
threatening to punish) the culprits. But the death penalty is almost
always applied to people whose crimes are much smaller.
My proposal to
limit the death penalty to individuals causing a million deaths, if
adopted universally, would mean the release of all prisoners currently
on death row in all countries. At the same time, those convicted of
causing a million deaths would never be executed. The death penalty is
traditionally used by the powerful to control the powerless. Influential
death-penalty candidates can generally save themselves by pulling
strings in the background. It is unfortunately not true that "everyone
is equal before the law", but we must nevertheless strive for legal
My proposal was a possible path toward universally ending the death penalty. The idea is
to limit the death penalty to people who cause large numbers
of deaths. The
actual number is arbitrary. To my
knowledge, that is the only consistent way to apply the widely accepted
legal principle of proportionality
to the most serious crimes: the size of a punishment should in some
sense be proportional to the size of the crime. Seen mathematically, we
may take the human life as a unit of measure, given universal acceptance that the value of a human life
is the most important value that all humans share. We
may then talk about monotonicity rather than proportionality: if crime
X is smaller than crime Y, the punishment for crime X should never be
bigger than the punishment for crime Y. Hopefully the
international discussion will begin soon. According to Amnesty
Chinese government is still secretly killing over one thousand of its
own citizens every year.
The Catholic condom ban
The idea of "death penalty for the pope" was obviously absurd and I
included it only in passing, as an explanatory
It exposed a contradiction that is inherent
in the opinions of death-penalty supporters, many of whom are
Christians: if the death penalty is
appropriate for the most serious crimes, what are those crimes exactly?
Surely anyone who has indirectly caused the deaths of milllions of
people (e.g. by not ending the Catholic condom ban in the 1980s) is a
The discussion about Catholic paedophilia has made steady
progress, although it is surely not over yet. But there has
almost no mention of the human-rights
implications of the Catholic condom ban, without
which millions of
AIDS victims would still be alive today. Tragically, neither the church
nor the general public has found the courage to talk about this
openly and honestly. Denial is not the answer. The ban is presumably
still indirectly causing thousands of AIDS deaths every year. The Wikipedia
page on this topic is informative but biased, because so few
people have the courage to defend the rights of the victims.
is religious hypocrisy at his worst: preaching universal love while at
the same time indirectly causing massive suffering and death.
Christians should read their Bibles, which incidentally say nothing at
all about contraception but a lot about moral courage (more),
and imagine what Jesus would say about the condom ban if he was here
death penalty is another case of Christian hypocrisy that Jesus would
surely have criticized. How can a modern Christian can be a
death-penalty supporter, as countless millions of Americans are, when (i) Christianity is supposed to be about
universal love and forgiveness, and (ii) the death
penalty caused the world's greatest
tragedy from a Christian perspective, namely the death of Jesus? The
Old Testament contains many references to the death penalty, explaining
when it should be applied according to ancient laws and practices. But
the whole point of Christianity is that the teachings of Christ
challenged Old Testament law and exposed its hypocrisy.
New Testament does not have any specific teachings about capital
punishment. However, the Old Testament ideas of punishment became
secondary to Jesus' message of love and redemption. Both reward and
punishment are seen as properly taking place in eternity, rather than
in this life. (source)
It's surely as simple as that? Incidentally, I may be atheist but I am
neither anti-religious nor anti-Catholic. On
the contrary, my best friends and colleagues tend to have an altruistic
orientation and for that reason have always included Christians. The
Western music that I study in my research and perform in my spare time
is a wonderful byproduct of Christian history. I acquired musical
skills by performing Christian music. Moreover, I am fascinated by the
richness and diversity of the world's religious rituals. Trying to
understand their psychology is one of my research areas.
recent years, Pope Francis has been defending the rights of the global
and opposing climate change at the highest level, for which he deserves
everyone's admiration and support. At the same time, he is failing to
introduce urgently needed reforms. Ending the condom ban is one. More
generally, all forms of discrimination, based for example on gender or
sexual orientation, should be ended, consistent with the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. For those who believe the Bible contains
absolute truth, enough evidence can be found. Many
scriptures point toward gender
equality. While the Bible is unclear about homosexuality,
many passages oppose discrimination
of any kind.
My main aim and approach
The main intention of my text was to provoke a discussion of a problem
that, from an
objective human-rights perspective,
is potentially the
world's most serious. In coming
decades, anthropogenic climate change will surely mean premature
death for hundreds of millions of
people. To reduce the magnitude of this catastrophe (given that
prevention is no longer possible), we need among other things to
identify the people who are
primarily responsible and force them to change their behavior, unless
they are kind enough to change voluntarily. Of course there are other
possible strategies, but to solve a problem of this magnitude, we must
focus on the most effective one.
Unfortunately, my text failed
provoke that discussion, although many people presumably realised the
deadly consequences of climate denial for the first time. As climate
change gets more serious, the probability is increasing that the most
important issues will finally be taken seriously. But a serious
discussion will not
begin until a large number of influential people finally have
address the problem directly and publicly. That has not happened yet,
and although there are promising signs, we are still a long way off. We
will have to admit
clearly and openly that we are killing enormous numbers of future
people with our emissions (more),
using the word "kill" the everyday sense of ending someone's life.
Needless to say, I did not "call for the
death penalty“ for anyone, as some media and climate blogs
enthusiastically claimed, as if they did not know the difference
between a question mark and an exclamation mark (in my title). Instead,
ideas and arguments. My
obvious intention was promote human rights by
provoking public discussion about what may be the modern world's most
serious problem(s). I
clarified that "I am neither a politician nor a lawyer. I am
just thinking aloud about an important problem".
I repeatedly used the word "propose"
or "proposal“, implying an invitation to discuss.
This intention was correctly recognized by Austria Presse
Agentur (link), whose report
was entitled "Uni-Professor stellt Todesstrafe zur Diskussion". The discussion is of paramount importance (nothing
in the world is
more important than the right to life of a billion people) and I am
still waiting for people of all political persuations and academic
backgrounds to take it seriously. I am similarly waiting for a
discussion of the mega-fatal consequences of the Catholic condom ban --
mentioned in the same text, because it is also about indirectly causing
the deaths of millions of people. In both cases, the perpetrators
knew in advance that their actions would cause millions to die
My text also included the
following disclaimer: "Please note that I am not directly suggesting
that the threat of execution be carried out. I am simply presenting a
logical argument." Many sensation-seeking commentators appear to have
read these sentences and decided to ignore them.
Three premises, one
The argument that I presented in 2012 can be interpreted in
different ways. One approach is to consider the logical
relationship between premises and conclusion. Consider the
Premise 1. About
half of the
people in the world still consider the death penalty to be justified
for the most serious crimes. We know this from surveys; the exact
proportion depends on how you ask the question. Changing their minds is
one of today's great challenges.
Premise 2. The
crimes are those in which one person knowingly causes enormous numbers
of deaths. This should be obvious from a human rights perspective, in
which every life has the same value. One could also estimate the amount
of suffering or the number of (quality) life-years lost, but that would
not significantly change the present argument.
Premise 3. The
climate deniers are causing or have caused enormous numbers of future
deaths. Those deaths will occur, for example, as the future death toll
in connection with poverty in developing countries rises in response to
multiple side-effects of climate change. Deniers cause future deaths by
hindering projects that would otherwise slow climate change. Many
people reject this logic, of course, and many others have not thought
about it. To my knowledge, the arguments I presented here and here are
basically correct, although the details could be improved. I have been
trying in vain for years to discover valid counterarguments. My claims
satisfy the scientific criterion of falsifiability, but no one seems
able to falsify them.
If all three premises are true, then for those people who (erroneously)
believe in the death penalty for the most serious crimes (premise 1),
"death penalty for climate deniers" is merely a logical conclusion.
Needless to say, I am opposed to this conclusion, because I am opposed
to premise 1. In general, the conclusion can be changed if we
change any one of the three premises.
Changing premise 1 means convincing death penalty supporters that the
death penalty is never justified. That is the aim of anything that I
have ever written about the death penalty. The outraged public reaction
to my 2012 blog suggested that I made some progress. First,
many climate deniers realized that the death penalty is never
justified, after imagining being candidates themselves. Second, others
who normally never mention human rights suddenly started to talk about
I don’t believe premise 2 can be changed. From a human rights
perspective, it is obviously correct, and I am not aware of any other
Nor do I believe premise 3 can be changed. The deniers will continue to
deny the causal connections, of course. Their behavior is complex and
resists a simple explanation. According to psychological
theory of moral development, some of them are immature
(selfish, dishonest, opportunist, irresponsible). Others may be
gullible or lacking in skills of critical
thinking. In any case, the law should expose and punish such
profound examples of irresponsibility, to protect the rights of others.
However hard they try, the deniers cannot change the logical
relationship between the above conclusion and premises. I did not
create this relationship. I could cite literature to
that all elements of the argument existed in advance. I merely put
together the pieces of the jigsaw, and then found the courage to defend
the right to life of a billion people.
Right now, hardly anyone is showing that courage, so things can only
improve. Please join me.
Limiting the death penalty as a
step toward ending it (more)
I became aware of the legal and ethical problems surrounding the death
penalty in the 1980s, I have opposed it unconditionally. Since the
have been a member of Amnesty International, first in the
UK and then in
Austria. During that time, I have participated in
countless urgent actions and letter
writing campaigns to stop the death penalty -- both in specific cases
universally. From 1999 to 2010 my yearly donation to Amnesty Austria
€87,20 (converted from
Austrian shillings), and since 2011, I have donated €100 Euros
Amnesty is more important today than ever. We need your
support. Please consider a yearly donation.
In my scandalous blog, I proposed limiting
the death penalty to people who cause a
million deaths. That
was the main point and my whole text revolved around it. The
was to attract attention to the massive human cost of climate
billion human lives are on the line.
there was an interesting twist. If such a proposal were
accepted internationally, the result would probably be what we
anti-death-penalty activists have been working toward for decades: the
total end of the death
penalty. First, all
criminals on death row in all countries would be saved.
with the possible consequences of implementing the new agreement, even hard-core death-penalty supporters would
change their minds. The penny would finally drop.
penny might drop, too. People might finally realise that for political
reasons the death penalty can never be applied according to
legal principle of proportionality in criminal law -- the idea that the
size of a punishment should reflect the size of the crime. It would become clear that there are people in
our midst who knowingly but indirectly cause enormous numbers of
deaths, but are never prosecuted. Others are executed for smaller
crimes such as murder (of one person), drug trafficking, rape,
blasphemy, treason, and
so on. If the death penalty is not being
applied proportionally, it
should not be applied at all.
The idea of
limiting the death penalty to people who cause a
million deaths was
two principles: proportionality in criminal law, and the equal
value of every
human life. Both principles are accepted
quasi-universally, so logically their combination should also be
universally accepted. The only open question is the size
of the number one million, which of course is arbitrary.
This kind of thinking can explain why the death penalty is still seriously proposed as a punishment for genocide by some legal
What exactly they think the death penalty will achieve in this or any
other case is unclear, but they somehow consider it to be "legitimate".
In a legal context, it would be practically impossible to accuse a
climate denier of causing a million deaths. Attribution would be very
difficult. There are too many uncertainties surrounding the future of
global climate, the (social/political) causal connection between
climate denial and emissions, and the (physical) causal connection
between emissions and climate change. In this scenario, the accused
would always be able to argue that the proposed connections are too
uncertain. They could get around arguments based on risk assessment
theory, because there is little precedent for such quantitative
arguments in law. All of this would happen as if the hundreds of
millions of victims of global warming did not exist.
The world's biggest problem
warming could cause a
billion deaths over a period of a century. The death penalty could
cause a hundred thousand deaths in the same period. If that is true,
global warming is ten thousand times more serious than the death
penalty, assuming that every life has the same value. Global warming
should therefore receive ten thousand times more attention than the
Climate change caused by our emissions
is effectively killing some ten million future people every year. For
have been following the public discourse about climate change and
poverty, this is hardly a surprising claim. The surprising thing is
nobody is talking about these future deaths, although objectively
speaking they could be the world's biggest problem and much more
important than the economic or even the ecological consequences of
climate change. Another
is that published estimates of future death tolls are usually either
underestimated or suppressed (and hence unknown).
The foundations for a rational discussion are in place. Most people
agree that human lives are the most important value that we have and
every human life has the same value. Most
people also agree that people are more important than money (even if
their actions suggest a different attitude). All we need do is apply
these moral foundations to our present situation, and consider the
implications. It should be easy.
reason for our silence might be guilt. Just about everyone in rich
countries is guilty of contributing more than their fair share to
change. That includes the climate researchers. None of
us want to admit our guilt. But if we don't, we won't solve the problem.
response to my text
blog exposed the massive guilt of climate deniers. They reacted by
applying their carefully acquired skills in truth
distortion, combining cyberbullying
Their attempt to make me look guilty and evil was a strategy
attention from their own guilt and malice. Well, they can try as hard
as they like to ruin my reputation, but I am not about to give up
defending the fundamental rights of a billion people.
uproar that followed the discovery of my scandalous text was surprising
when you consider that I had presented an idea that most
people in the world, and even most people in liberal Western Europe,
would immediately agree with: to limit
the death penalty to people who cause enormous numbers of deaths. I merely considered the
implications, asking which
people in the world might be candidates if the death penalty were
limited in this way.
were as shocked as I was by my conclusions. But it was my
intention to shock, in the hope that the world's most important
problems would at last be taken seriously. Wake up, world. Hopefully,
many people realised (perhaps even for the first time) that
climate denial is the most important social and political force behind
climate change, (ii) climate change will probably indirectly kill
hundreds of millions of people, if not billions, and (iii) the death
never justified. A new
formulation of this argument can be found here.
People expected me to defend myself. I
was reluctant to do so, because the right to life of hundreds of
millions of children in developing countries is obviously more
important than my reputation. If I was going to defend
anything, it was the basic rights of an enormous number of
people. That is also what my self-righteous
critics should have done -- and should still be doing.
and in the midst of what I later learned was a "shitstorm", I apologized. In
retrospect, that was inappropriate. How can one apologize for
defending the right to life of a billion people?
I should have
publicly explained how and why so many people had misunderstood my text
-- either deliberately or accidentally. Perhaps like this:
strictly and actively oppose the death penalty in all conceivable cases
-- unlike many
of the climate deniers who were attacking me (many of whom also
supported the US Republican Party).
- My main
goal was to attract attention to what is perhaps the
biggest "elephant in the room" of all time: the causal link between
climate denial and the future premature deaths of hundreds of millions
- If we
want to attract attention to the world's most important neglected
issues, we need extreme approaches.
As I wrote near the start of my original text (GW = global warming):
without GW (or ignoring the small amount that has happened so far), a
billion people are living in poverty right now. Every five seconds a
child is dying of hunger (more).The
Nations and diverse NGOs are trying to solve this problem, and making
some progress. But political forces in the other direction are
stronger. The strongest of these political forces is GW denial.
was accused of a shopping list of things that I
never did. I should have expected that. I was
deniers, and lying is what they do for a living -- on behalf of, and
funded by, the rich fossil fuel industry. Besides, I can hardly
accuse the deniers of exaggerating when I did so myself.
German speakers -- even those who read and speak English fluently --
seemed to misunderstand the word "propose", which I used several
times. They confused it with "suggest", "call for", or even "demand".
None of these words corresponds exactly to German terms such
When I "proposed" limiting the death penalty to criminals who cause a
million deaths, which would save all criminals currently on death row
anywhere, my intention was to put an idea out there that can be
discussed (French: pro
the German equivalent is zur
When an academic writes a "research proposal", she is not
a grant agency what to do, but offering some interesting ideas and
claiming that they have potential. A "marriage proposal" is not coercive -- the other
is free to accept or reject it. When a
cook "proposes" a new desert, you don't have to eat it.
I did not
"call for" anything. Instead, I drew attention to some of the world's
most serious neglected problems. The title of my text was a question,
and the text itself mainly took the form of an argument. Consider
the following claims:
every second person in the world supports the death
penalty for the most serious crimes.
2. If our
value system is based on the equal value
of every human life, the
most serious crimes are probably those that cause the largest numbers
warming will probably cause hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of
deaths. We, the people causing the emissions, are effectively putting
those people on death row. Like real
prisoners on real death rows, they will die prematurely with a certain
probability. These people are alive right now -- as children.
climate denial is probably the biggest social and political force
behind climate change. Without the denial, the problem would
probably be under control by now.
All four points include the word "probably" because
much about this argument is
uncertain. But arguments are normally uncertain (otherwise
would be no need to argue) and the uncertainty does not change
fact that the lives of a
billion people are threatened. That
is a fact, so the word "probably" is not necessary.
than "calling for" something, I presented and discussed these
crucial issues and considered their connections and implications,
while at the same time emphasizing that I am opposed to the death
penalty in all cases. I
invited people to talk about taboo topics, which can explain the
contradictory responses to my text: people are generally reluctant to talk
about points 1 and 2, and
usually refuse to talk about 3 and 4. But the problems will
solved until we emerge from our denial and start to talk about
deniers and the media gleefully reported that I had
"called for" the death penalty for certain people. The motivation
behind this lie was ultimately financial. Deniers make money out of
their links to the fossil fuel industry; part of their "job" is to
destroy the reputations of their opponents. The media make money out of
In fact, I was drawing attention to the right to life of a billion
people -- children living right now in developing countries, as well as
future generations. It is even
to promote their rights than it is to end the death penalty,
because they are so much more numerous. Imagine this: if China
continued to secretly execute a thousand people per year for a century,
the result would be 100 000 preventable deaths. But global
is likely to indirectly cause a billion deaths over the course of a
century. From this we may conclude, basing our argument on the equal
value of every human life, that the problem of global warming is 10 000
times bigger than the problem of the death penalty. Although deaths in
connection with climate change are not
intended, the two cases are similar in that we know that we are
causing the deaths, and we are capable of preventing them. In summary,
we can say that both
projects -- stopping
the death penalty and stopping global warming -- are enormously
important. But given the
limited resources of those who care about these problems, we also have
consider priorities and should therefore channel more resources into
the climate problem.
My statement was not out of the blue. During the previous decade, I had
been coming increasingly aware of a basic ethical
problem. What is more important to me personally --
the basic rights of a billion children in developing countries, or my
well-being? If I had a chance to promote their rights, but only by
risking my well-being, would I do it? Hopefully I am not the only one
asking that question.
From 2000 to 2010, I was
politically active in
the area of interculturality and anti-racism, culminating in an
international conference (cAIR10).
But I can only do this work of this kind in my limited spare time. So I
decided to try to identify today's most important issues on focus on
them (more). If
human lives are the
foundation of our value system and every human life is equally
valuable, the problem of child mortality is evenmore
serious than everyday racism. Every day, over 10 000 children
unnecessarily in developing countries, mostly from hunger. Over ten
thousand children, every day. Every single death is a tragedy.
In the rich countries, we are living our lives as if this is not
happening. This "poverty denial" is comparable with climate
denial. The good news is that the preventable child mortality rate has
been falling, slowly but surely, for decades. The bad news is
climate change will make it
increase again and could double
by the end of the century. This approximate prediction follows directly
knowledge about physical, social and political aspects of the
situation. But almost everyone is ignoring the future death toll in
connection with climate change.
We are quietly refusing to consider the number of people that will
suffer and die as a
result. Instead we are talking about other aspects of
climate change -- or avoiding the topic altogether.
What I did not know in 2012, as I wrote my scandalous text, was that
climate deniers already had a lot of experience
harassing leading climate scientists (more).
After discovering my text, they jumped at the chance to add me to their
list, which I guess could
be interpreted as a compliment.
For those who want to
read my original text, it is linked to my wiki pages. I am reluctant
to recommend it, because a few passages should never have been written,
and I was unable to change them. Nor could I delete the text from the internet, because after
deleted it, someone found it in
Google Cache and published it elsewhere against my will. From this I
learned that the internet
never forgets. Later,
I realised that the text itself (warts and all) is my best defence
against the nonsense that has been written about it, so perhaps it is
just as well that it can still be found.
The right to life of a
penalty was not the main theme of my statement. It was merely a
hook to attact attention. My main aim -- and I made it clear from the
emphasized it repeatedly -- was to defend the basic rights of a billion
future victims of global warming. Our emissions are putting these
people on death row. Their rights are being ignored, as if they did not
The number one billion may seem like an exaggeration. I do not believe
that it is, as I will explain. But even if it is, the precautionary
principle suggests that we would still be talking about the
biggest problem in today's world.
emissions suddenly stopped, the earth's temperature would continue
to rise for a few decades, causing hundreds of millions of
future deaths -- spread out across a few or several decades. Assuming
that climate denial is the main reason why the fossil fuel industry was
not suppressed decades ago, as it should have been according to the
science at the time, it follows that climate denial
caused hundreds of millions of deaths. If we combine modern research on
with knowledge about global agriculture, maintenance of fresh water
supplies, population growth, international migration,
and the causes of conflict and violence, we can predict with reasonable
confidence that roughly one billion people will die prematurely later
this century as an
indirect result of the human
emissions that are currently in the atmosphere.
this estimate can be criticized, it is only because it is so
approximate. It is no more than an order of magnitude. We need to
imagine a world whose population has reached 10 billion and whose
resources are increasingly limited. The amount of food and fresh water
will probably still be enough for the whole world, as it is today. But
limitations due to transport, politics, and conflict will mean that
large regions will not have enough food or water for long periods.
These will usually be the poorer and/or warmer regions. Agriculture
will be severely limited by changing weather, freak storms, pollution,
water shortages in dry areas, floods in wet areas, rising sea levels
(salination of previously fertile land), and species extinction.
Fishing will be limited by increasing acidity and reduced oxygen in sea
water and pollution. Some scientists are predicting massive species
extinction both on land and in the seas -- as many as half of all
species could be extinct in a century. The resultant loss of
biodiversity will drastically affect food production. In addition,
fresh water supplies will be limited by drought, deglaciation, and
water wars. This will cause and exacerbate fatal diseases, and expand
the affected geographic areas.
Climate change feedback is a vicious cycle that increases global
warming without any additional human input. It involves methane release
from the arctic, permafrost, and hydrates; rainforest drying and forest
fires; desertification; cloud feedback; and ice-albedo feedback. If we
ignore such feedback effects and consider only anthropogenic warming,
current political and climatic trends suggest that a few
million people will die in connection with climate change toward the
end of this century. If we also consider climate change feedback, the
likely total death toll rises to billions -- perhaps a third
world's population. These are reasonable estimates when one considers
the entire ecosystem of the earth, its obvious limitations, the growing
human population, and physical and political limitations on human
mobility. The fact that we are talking about the worst human tragedy
ever does not make the prediction any less valid.
If the size of a crime is proportional to the number of people who die
as a result, as I argued, global warming will be the worst
crime ever in human history. It will also be the worst ever case of
because "race" is evidently the reason why we are ignoring the rights
of those who are likely to die or suffer the most. If the main
predicted victims of global warming
were white, we would have done much more to solve the problem
solutions are possible, but so far no-one has a feasible plan to remove
such enormous amounts of CO2 and other
greenhouse gases from
probability of discovering a miraculous technological or biological
not high. The most likely scenario is that the predicted warming
will happen. Every decade from now until 2100, the situation
will get steadily worse.
How did it come to this? If we look carefully at the social and
political context of the past
few decades, in which annual global emissions rose steadily from year
at the same time as climate scientists were warning of the
consequences, we can see who carries the most responsibility for this
ominous development (more).
The most influential climate deniers have always
had full access to the predictions of the best climate science, and
even if they didn't, the basic principles can be understood by any
child. Greenhouse gases are like blankets in the earth's atmosphere,
and if you put more blankets on your bed, it will get warmer.
If we were serious about defending the basic rights of children in
developing countries, we would be identifying most
influential climate deniers of the past few decades and charging
them with systematically impeding projects to slow global
and thereby save millions of future lives. The legal proceedings would
within their own countries (more)
or internationally (more).
But hardly anyone has the courage to talk about this, it seems. We are
not taking the rights of a billion children seriously. The right of a
multinational cooperation to make a profit is being treated
as more important than the right of a billion
live to a reasonable age and enjoy a reasonable quality of life. What
could be more shocking than that?
Given the extreme urgency of these issues, unconventional literary
forms are justified. My 2012 text did not hurt anyone, but evidently
thousands of people (millions, for all I know) realised for the first
time that climate change is not only about polar bears -- it is a
of life and death for untold millions of people. If my text indirectly
reduced by 0.1% the
probability that a billion people will die prematurely as a
result of global warming, it effectively saved a million lives.
If my text reduced that probability by 0.0001%, it effectively saved a
thousand lives. These are not wild claims; they are true
statements that follow directly from risk assessment theory. They don't
make me a hero, but they do serve to underline the seriousness of the
still possible to limit the damage. The
global energy revolution is finally happening. But if we are
effectively killing a
every time we burn a thousand tons of fossil carbon (more), and if we are serious
about defending the basic rights of every human being on the planet, the revolution should be happening much faster than
was agreed in Paris.
enable a fast transition to sustainable energy, we urgently need legal
procedures to prevent
influential climate denial. A legal approach based on human
rights is possible and realistic. If Holocaust denial can be made
illegal, so can climate denial. A legal
foundation to protect the rights
of children in developing countries already exists, namely the
Declaration of Human Rights. It is widely respected and
implemented in many
different ways in many national legal systems.
As I wrote in my 2012 text:
A thought experiment
At the end of 2012, I guess some 200 people objected publicly
my text, claiming or assuming incorrectly that I had “called
for” the death penalty for influential climate deniers.
half of them contributed to internet blogs and the other half wrote
Imagine what would have happened if those 200 people had actually read
my statement -- not just the title, omitting the question mark, but the
whole thing. What if they had actually thought about it and understood
what it was really about? Imagine those 200 light bulbs lighting up.
Those 200 pennies finally dropping.
Now imagine those 200 people apologizing for their previous postings or
emails and instead objecting publicly to the future premature deaths of
a billion people in developing countries. Imagine them explaining the
indirect causal role of influential climate deniers, but also of all
residents of richer countries, in those future deaths. Imagine those
200 people understanding how we, every day, take advantage of an unfair
global economic system, and on top of that emit too much greenhouse
gas, and how that makes us responsible for the present and future
avoidable death toll in developing countries.
If that is hard to imagine, let's instead try to imagine just ten of
those people objecting publicly to the mega-fatal future consequences
of climate denial. Still hard to imagine? Perhaps just one person? This
line of thought raises an interesting question: Does anyone at all care
enough about this to be honest about it? Does anyone have the courage
to break the ice? Or have we all secretly agreed in some kind of global
conspiracy to avoid talking publicly about our guilt?
From this brief analysis, and regarding my 2012 text as a kind of
social experiment, designed to find out who if anyone has seriously
considered these issues, we can now formulate our conclusions. Many
people consider the life of an influential climate denier to be roughly
a million times more important than the life of a person living in
poverty in a developing country whose life will be shortened as a
result of climate denial. A million times! We know this because most
participants in the public discussion of my text were more unhappy
about the possible death of an influential climate denier than the
million deaths that that person apparently caused. In fact, the million
victims were not even mentioned.
Now imagine asking those 200 people what they think of the following
claim: Every human life has the same value, regardless of skin color,
gender, wealth, age, religion, and so on. Presumably, they would all
agree. Of course, they would say, it's obvious.
They would also agree that we are not talking about murder here,
because neither the influential deniers nor anyone else intends to kill
anyone: as I pointed out in my original text:
the GW deniers would point out straight away that they don't intend to
kill anyone. ... The GW deniers are simply of the opinion that the GW
scientists are wrong. ... [They are] enjoying their freedom of speech
and perhaps they sincerely believe what they are claiming. They can
certainly cite lots of evidence (you can find evidence for just about
anything if you look hard enough).
But that does not change the fact that we (and especially the
influential deniers) are knowingly causing these present and future
deaths. If those 200 people were honest (and many are), they would have
to agree with that as well.
Are we going to start talking about this? Or do we prefer to keep our
heads in the sand? An alien visitor from outer space would be
astonished at the difference between what humans say about morality and
what they actually do. A million to one! The hypocrisy is truly
I am unaware of anyone who has estimated the number of deaths that an
influential climate denier can cause. If I have missed something,
please let me know. However many writers have approached the topic from
Jean Ziegler has argued that every child who dies of hunger is
murdered. While I have the greatest respect and admiration for his
courageous and inspiring contribution, I disagree with the use of the
word "murder" in this context. There is an important difference between
negligence, however extreme, and murder. (The special status of the
Holocaust by comparison to other massive crimes involves the
premeditated nature of the killing.) But Ziegler is right that most of
those dying children (and they are dying right now as I write and you
read this — what could be more horrific than that?) could
been saved if we in the rich countries had bothered in the past few
decades to create a fair global economic system. In the future, those
children will die because right now we are not bothering to stop global
warming. I guess an appropriate term for this extreme form of
negligence is “indirect killing”.
Philosopher John Nolt, author of an influential 2015 book on
environmental ethics, wrote a paper in 2011 entitled “How
Are the Average American's Greenhouse Gas Emissions?” in
calculated that the emissions of the average American today are killing
or seriously harming one or two future people.
In her book "Merchants of Doubt", Historian Naomi Oreskes brilliantly
documented the actions of past climate deniers. It will be a great day
in the history of law and justice when the main culprits are tried
according to the evidence that she and others have painstakingly
collected. If the trial is fair, they will presumably find themselves
behind bars for the rest of their lives.
Activist Naomi Klein has explained how the entire capitalist system has
to be changed to avert an unprecedented global disaster. Countless
others have contributed to this topic from many angles.
In the past few years, the frequency of news reports that consider the
present and future fatal consequences of climate change has been
rising. That is a promising development. In an article published in
September 2017, Mark Hertsgaard realized that “Climate
is literally killing us”. I like this article, but disagree
two points. First Hertsgaard uses the word
the climate deniers do not intend to kill anyone. Second, the number of
people who will die in the future as a result of today's
denialism is much higher than his implied estimates. We are talking
about hundreds of millions and possibly billions.
My all-time favorite journalist is George Monbiot. A long time ago, in
a discussion transcribed and published in May 2007, he said:
We Don’t Deal with Climate Change We Condemn Hundreds of
of People to Death”. The capital letters mean the comment
The more people have the courage to talk about this problem directly,
the more it will be taken seriously. But we are still a long way from
considering the true human consequences of influential climate
denial. It seems that most people are in denial about that
— a form of meta-denial. We are living our lives as if this
not happening or as if we didn’t know about it. As if we were
The bottom line
In closing, allow me to make two main points.
We are talking about a
future victims of global warming are
today's children in developing countries. They really exist, right now.
They are not
"future generations", although of course future generations are also
important. The lives of a billion children living right now really will
be shortened by global
warming, which in plain English means that global warming will kill them, which
means our emissions are
killing them, which means we are killing them. That
these claims follow logically from one another is obvious; the example
could be straight from a philosophy textbook. The shocking nature of
these statements changes nothing about their truth content (whether
they are true is independent of whether they are shocking). If
actively suppress such claims or statements, we are engaging in denial
(which also follows logically from the previous statements). But we
have known about these causal relationships for several decades, and
there has never been a good excuse for denying them.
This is the most
important issue in current politics.
If we assume that every human life has the same value, and apply risk
assessment theory and order-of-magnitude estimates to this problem in a
rational way, we see that global warming, upon which everything on this
planet depends, is probably more serious that all other
comparable problems of global proportions, such as for example the
wealth gap, the risk of nuclear
holocaust, the risk of a genetically
manipulated pandemic, loss of biodiversity and holocene
extinction (the earth's sixth mass extinction event, this
time caused by humans), or the implications of land
degradation for future food production.
It is time for the legal profession, and everyone else, to realise that
humans need food and fresh water to survive,
and global warming will irreversibly reduce both for a large proportion
of the world's growing population. The result willl be the greatest
tragedy humanity has every experienced.
not too late to prevent this mega-catastrophe, but if we are not
careful, it soon will be. The way things are going, we will
back on the 2010s as the decade in which we missed the last opportunity
to save ourselves.
from selected emails
following texts were copied verbatim, with permission of the
authors, from emails that I received
during December 2012 and January 2013. I do not necessarily
with the details of these statements, even if they generally support my
argument regarding the death
penalty is an extreme view but I am
sympathetic. I was more surprised by how vituperative and ignorant some
people have been in response. Good on you for pointing out how research
is carried out, the motivation of scientists and the implications for
"I am always amazed how people, the so-called climate sceptics among
them, find it difficult to cope with doubts and uncertainties such as
those that you showed in your text. You gave expression to an important
moral dilemma: on one hand the refusal to kill, and the freedom of
expression, and on the other hand the fact that people make obviously
very wrong decisions that affect us all and that you want to stop. And
so they pounce on some words, take them out of context and suddenly you
seem to advocate a totalitarian view. Ah well..."
‘At any given moment
is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas
which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without
question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other,
but it is “not done” to say it, just as in
mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention
trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the
prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising
effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given
a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow
--- George Orwell, "Freedom of the Press", unprinted introduction to
Animal Farm, first printed, ed. Bernard Crick, Times Literary
Supplement, September 15, 1972: p. 1040."
am sure you know best, that you
haven't done your masterpiece with
this article, but your intentions were good and pure. Everybody, who
knows you, knows that you are a good and honest man. As your article
shows you are also passionate about the future of your children and of
whole the mankind."
"I just wanted to let you know that I think it was a really good idea
publish your thoughts on the page of the university. I saw the death
penalty as a metapher for "this should have consequences", nothing
else…and there are no organizations on the world that caused
more pain, deaths and wars than religions. You might have read
“god is not great”…I’m really
happy someone who a few people listen too has addressed at least one
very critical topic."
you for the interesting
article. It's a sad world where you can't
even make a logical argument any more..."
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